08/02/2006 12:00AM

After tough spring, a chance to shine

Adam Coglianese / NYRA
Strong Contender's 7 3/4-length win in the Dwyer under Edgar Prado signaled he may be ready to live up to his promise. Sunday's Haskell is next.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - For a variety of reasons, Strong Contender never got untracked in the first half of the season. But a recent dominant victory suggests the son of Maria's Mon is finally poised to impact the national 3-year-old scene, and the Haskell Invitational could be his breakthrough race.

On Sunday, Strong Contender bids for his first Grade 1 victory in the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth Park. He figures to be one of the favorites following a 7 3/4-length victory in the Grade 2 Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park on July 4. Strong Contender earned 109 Beyer Speed Figure in the Dwyer, the best career number of the expected eight starters in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell.

Strong Contender is finally headed in the direction suggested by his first two starts, a maiden victory last year at Arlington Park and an allowance win at Gulfstream Park in February. Those performances had his trainer, John Ward, and many future-pool players projecting Strong Contender as a Kentucky Derby horse.

It never panned out.

Ward targeted the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park for Strong Contender's third race. Strong Contender was on the van to Kentucky when Ward learned the colt had been excluded from the field. The race was limited to the top 12 based on earnings; Strong Contender was 13th. Strong Contender was returned to Florida after arriving at Ward's Keeneland stable.

That left the Blue Grass Stakes as the one shot to bank enough graded stakes earnings to enter the Derby. He didn't reach that goal. Strong Contender, bumped at the start, finished third behind runaway winner Sinister Minister.

Strong Contender followed with a third in Belmont's Peter Pan Stakes before making his boldest statement in the 1 1/16-mile Dwyer.

"He really showed his talent in that race," said jockey Edgar Prado, who has been aboard for three of Strong Contender's five starts. "He has really improved mentally and physically. I'm very impressed with the way he's going into the Haskell."

Ward wants to see Strong Contender affirm the Dwyer form in the Haskell.

"I would tend to say that he is progressing well," Ward said. "Prado has been very happy with his races, especially his last one. What I look for, as a trainer, is consistent repeat performances."

Ward opted to run Minister's Bid and Dr. Pleasure in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga last Saturday while reserving Strong Contender for the Haskell.

"The other two horses got a weight break in the Jim Dandy," Ward said. "Strong Contender wouldn't have gotten as much because of the Dwyer win. It just kind of logically fell out in that progression. The other two colts were already at Saratoga, so it was logical for him to stay at home at Belmont and run in the Haskell."

The only flaw in the Jim Dandy plan was Bernardini. The Preakness winner romped to a nine-length victory, with Minister's Bid second and Dr. Pleasure fourth.

"Everything made sense, except the horse we ran up against," Ward said. "He's a super-nice horse. Our horses ran very good. They ran to our expectations. We ran into an extremely superior performance. In my opinion, Bernardini will come back and make that performance again. That's just racing."

The major target of the summer for Ward is the Grade 1, $1 million Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 26. The Haskell will help determine how Ward attacks that goal.

"We'll take a look at how we are, where we are, and we'll determine our best attack for the next 60 days with those animals," Ward said. "We still have a lot of races in the fall, so you have to know when to rest these horses. We'll look to take our best shot in the Travers."

That shot could well be Strong Contender.

"The only negative on him in the Travers would be coming back in 20 days," Ward said. "But if you look at his schedule, I put plenty of time in between his other races. Coming back on 20 days doesn't really bother me with a dead-fit animal. Before we take that step, we need to see his performance in the Haskell."

Prado hopes Strong Contender is ready for that step.

"He does have the stamina and the breeding, and he's more mature now," Prado said. "We have to keep our fingers crossed that he can reach the level to give Bernardini a run for the money."